The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Liu Zhuoquan - and some thoughts about China from home

Liu Zhuoquan, Display Box of 24 assorted glass bottles, 2010, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Porjects

After two weeks back in Sydney I am still waiting for my experiences in China to coalesce into somthing more comprehensible and coherent - and something which can be communicated to other people. I am beginning to suspect that, like China itself, which always seems to defy one's expectations, this isn't going to happen; or not at least in the way I anticipated. To this point I am still dealing with a chaotic jumble of impressions, ideas, thoughts and memories - a bit like walking in a Chinese city where your senses are assailed in the most extraordinary ways and it can be very overwhelming.

Back at work everyone asks 'So, how was China?' What on earth could be the reply to that? Magnificent, infuriating, fabulous, astonishing, incomprehensible, joyous, confusing.......and utterly, utterly fascinating. I am still dreaming about China every night, and often still waking up and wondering which city, and which hotel room I am in. I don't want my experiences to vanish without trace into the humdrum but absorbing realities of daily life, in the way that even fantastic holidays have a habit of doing. So I am trying to spend some time each week reflecting on the experience as I begin to write more formal articles and prepare materials for students about the practice of the artists I have met. I want to continue learning Chinese and reading about China, and about Chinese art.

I have just begun reading another book by Peter Hessler, who wrote the wonderful book about driving in China. This one, 'River Town', is an account of his two years in the 1990s teaching English in Fuling, a town in Sichuan on the intersection of the Wu and Yangtze Rivers. I think it may well now be a part of the vast city of Chongqing, and part of it also no doubt submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. One of the early chapters is about his struggles (and oh, God, how I empathise!) in learning Chinese: "I also wanted to learn Chinese out of stubborness, because as a waiguoren (literally, an 'out of country person') you weren't expected to do that. Such low expectations had a long tradition; even as late as the early 1880s it had been illegal for a Chinese to teach the language to foreigners, and a number of Chinese were imprisoned and even executed for tutoring young Englishman. This bit of history fascinated me: how many languages had been sacred and forbidden to outsiders? Certainly those laws had been changed more than a century ago, but China was still ambivalent about opening to the outside world and language was still at the heart of this issue".

Here is his account of his first lesson with Teacher Liao: " My first tutorial with Teacher Liao was scheduled for two hours but I lasted less than sixty minutes. I went home with my head reeling - had a human being ever compressed more wrongness into a single hour? Everything was wrong - tones, grammar, vocabulary, initial sounds." I vividly remember my own first lesson with the gentle Lian, when after about 45 minutes of the scheduled 60 minutes I said, "I'm sorry, but I can't do any more today because my head hurts too much and I have to go home now!" My own experience of trying to learn Chinese has been so difficult, so frustrating, and yet at the same time so interesting. It is rare as a functioning adult to have such a humbling experience - my only similar experience in recent years, due to being 'mathematically challenged', was being reduced to tears in trying to understand statistical analysis of quantitative research data in Masters lectures at university. It all brought back such vivid memories of my hopeless attempts to understand Maths at school. It is probably good for teachers to have experiences like this - might make us less impatient and more empathic! But it's not much fun.

Today I will go to the wonderful White Rabbit Gallery to have a second look at the exhibition, 'The Year of the Rabbit', which I saw before I went to China. They also have a film club once a month, and today it is the Zhang Yimou film 'The Story of Qiu Ju', with Gong Li.

I am currently writing about the work of Liu Zhuoquan, who works with the ancient technique of 'inside painting' (like ancient snuff bottles) but instead uses discarded bottles as found objects. His subject matter ranges from the contemporary (and sometimes controversial) to imagery which connects with Chinese tradition and history, influenced also by the extended time he spent in Tibet. Here are some images of his work:

Have also just discovered the new bilingual art journal 'Leap', and the current issue focuses on art education - very interesting!

Liu Zhuoquan, Three Black Fish, 2009, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects

Liu Zhuoquan, Four Red Fish, 2009, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects